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Public support for global warming policies: solution framing matters

  • Jessica M. NolanEmail author
  • Samantha E. Tobia
Article

Abstract

One of the biggest challenges to sustainability is lack of public support for policies needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Across three studies, we explored how solution framing impacts public support for financially costly policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Study 1 analyzed data from a statewide public opinion poll (N = 771), while studies 2 (N = 100) and 3 (N = 163) were laboratory-based experiments. Specifically, we found that polling questions that asked about a financially costly climate change policy received more support when the goal of the policy was to create efficient technologies than when the goal was to curtail behavior. In addition, we replicate previous research showing that there is a partisan gap for beliefs about global warming and extend this research to show that the partisan gap is not found when looking at support for solutions. The implications of these results for promoting needed climate change policies is discussed.

1 Introduction

Every year, polling organizations like Gallup, Roper, and the Pew Center ask Americans about their opinions on everything from their approval for the current president to what makes them happy. In some cases, these public opinion polls are then used to justify the adoption or removal of public policies. In this paper, we argue that how solutions for global climate change are framed in public opinion poll questions can dramatically impact support for climate change–related policies. Specifically, we argue that polling questions which emphasize the creation of efficient technologies as the goal of a financially costly policy will receive more support than polling questions that identify curtailment as the goal of the policy.

1.1 Public opinion and public policy in the USA

Previous research has established that changes in public opinion are likely to prompt congruent changes to public policy (Burstein 2003; Page and Shapiro 1983; Stimson et al. 1995). In a review of 52 studies investigating the impact of public opinion on public policy, the results showed that 75% of the tested relationships between opinion and policy were statistically significant (Burstein 2003). In 35% of these studies, the authors found that the impact of public opinion was not just statistically significant, but also had a substantive impact on policy decisions. This is especially true when opinion change is large, stable, and salient (Page and Shapiro 1983). For example, when opinion changed by more than ten percentage points on a topic, policy changes were congruent in 87% of the observed cases, versus 63% of the cases in which public opinion change was small or fluctuating. Results also showed that congruent policy changes were more likely when public opinion moved in a liberal direction.

Stimson et al. (1995) argue that when policy changes with public opinion, it illustrates dynamic representation by the government for the people. Changes in public opinion affects voting in both the Senate and, to a lesser extent, the House of Representatives. Public opinion also has an impact on presidential liberalism, as defined by the President’s interactions with Congress and, to a lesser extent, as defined by the solicitor general’s interactions with the Supreme Court. Even the decisions of appointed government bodies, such as the Supreme Court, reflect changes in public opinion. Political scientists have argued that many of the Supreme Court’s decisions have been influenced by public opinion, including the decision to make same-sex marriage a constitutional right nationwide (Ball 2015; Friedman 2009; Sides 2013; Voeten 2013).

Public opinion has also been found to impact state-level policy decisions. Specifically, with respect to a state’s commitment to environmental policies, public opinion about the environment within a state affects state-level environmental policy indirectly via increased membership in environmental groups and the tendency to elect more liberal candidates across the state (Hays et al. 1996). More recent research found that public opinion on climate change was a significant predictor of how elected representatives in the US Congress voted on cap-and-trade legislation, while controlling for elite opinion and legislator’s party affiliation (Vandeweerdt et al. 2016). These results highlight the importance of political pressure from citizens in shaping environmental policy at the state and congressional district level.

1.2 Public opinion on climate change

Global warming is one of the pre-eminent threats to human civilization in the twenty-first century (Guarino and Dennis 2017; IPCC 2018; Watts et al. 2017). A majority of Americans are at least somewhat concerned about climate change (Quinnipiac University Poll 2017). Furthermore, a majority of Americans also believe that climate change is real, that it is caused by human activity, and that more needs to be done to address it (Quinnipiac University Poll 2017; for a recent review see Egan and Mullin 2017). However, research has shown that there is a gap between Republicans and Democrats in their concern for global warming and other environmental problems that has been increasing since the late 1990s (Dunlap and McCright 2008; Dunlap et al. 2001; Dunlap et al. 2016). While Democrats and Liberals have shown increasing concern for the environment and global warming, the reverse has been true for Republicans and Conservatives (McCright and Dunlap 2011a). This politicization of global climate change has also been documented in other areas of the world such as Australia (Tranter 2013) and the European Union (McCright et al. 2016). Furthermore, these differences in political ideology can impact consumer decision-making related to energy conservation (Gromet et al. 2013).

Previous research has also shown gender differences in knowledge and concern for global climate change (McCright 2010). Women show greater concern for the seriousness of climate change, compared to men. Women have also been shown to perform better than men on objective tests of knowledge about the causes and timing of global climate change, but tend to underestimate their knowledge when making subjective estimates, compared to men. That is, women tend to believe they are less knowledgeable than they actually are, compared to men. Other research has shown that conservative White males are significantly more likely than other groups to deny the causes, seriousness, and consequences of global climate change (McCright and Dunlap 2011b).

1.3 Framing environmental problems

Some scholars have argued that framing is one of the most important concepts in the study of public opinion (e.g., Druckman 2001). According to Druckman (2001, p. 1042), “a framing effect is said to occur when, in the course of describing an issue or event, a speaker’s emphasis on a subset of potentially relevant considerations causes individuals to focus on these considerations when constructing their opinions.” In this section, we review the subset of the literature on framing effects that is relevant to understanding the public response to environmental problems.

Researchers and pollsters agree that subtle differences in question wording can have a dramatic impact on results. A prime example of the importance of how one asks the question comes from a study by Yeager et al. (2011). When survey respondents were asked what they thought the most important problem facing the country today was, only 1% said global warming or the environment, but when asked what they thought the “most serious problem would be in the future if nothing was done to stop it,” 25% said global warming or the environment.

Others have looked at how the words used to describe environmental problems influence the response to survey questions. For example, respondents in Cornell’s 2013 National Social Survey who were asked about “fracking” perceived that there were greater risks to the communities where it occurs, had more negative associations with the term, and were less supportive overall, compared to those who were asked the same questions about the synonymous term “shale oil or gas development” (Clarke et al. 2015). Similarly, people are more likely to believe that “climate change” is happening, compared to “global warming” (Baumer et al. 2017; Schuldt et al. 2015; Schuldt et al. 2017). When the results were broken down by political party affiliation, it showed that Republicans were more likely to believe that climate change was happening compared to global warming, while the response of Democrats was unaffected by the change in wording. Schuldt et al. (2017) point out that asking about “climate change” then becomes a way to decrease the previously mentioned partisan divide. A more complicated pattern was seen when asking about the perceived seriousness of “climate change” versus “global warming” (Villar and Krosnick 2011). Democrats perceived “global warming” to be a more serious problem than “climate change,” while the reverse was true for Republicans. It should be noted that not all differences in wording have a significant impact on opinion. For example, Villar and Krosnick (2011) found no difference in support for climate change mitigation legislation that was described as requiring “higher taxes” versus “higher prices.”

Wording can also impact real-world behavioral choices. When participants were asked to choose between two identical products, such as an airline flight, which differed only in terms of their price, they were more likely to choose the more expensive option when the extra cost was attributed to a carbon offset versus a carbon tax (Hardisty et al. 2010). However, this effect was not uniform across political party affiliation. Independents and Republicans, but not Democrats, were significantly less likely to choose the more expensive option when it was described as including a carbon tax versus a carbon offset.

Messages can also be framed in terms of their consequences. For example, a message that emphasized the local consequences of climate change increased engagement with climate change, while a message that emphasized global impacts did not (Scannell and Gifford 2013). Similarly, a message that emphasized what the current generation would lose by failing to take action on environmental problems was more effective than messages that emphasized what would be gained from changing current behavior or that emphasized how changes would affect future generations (Davis 1995; see also Kahneman and Tversky 1979).

1.4 The present research

The primary purpose of the present research was to explore how framing policy solutions to global climate change impacts public support for those policies. Previous research outside of the environmental arena shows that the reasons given for imposing policies can shift public support. For example, respondents supported welfare polices when the solution was framed as helping poor people get ahead, but not when it was framed as resulting in higher taxes (Sniderman and Theriault 2004).

Environmentalists have discussed two approaches for solving global climate change, curtailment, and efficiency. Curtailment solutions to global climate change focus on motivating individuals to voluntarily reduce their energy consumption by making changes to their everyday activities (Stern 2000). Curtailment often requires that individuals sacrifice their personal comfort and convenience for the sake of the environment. Examples of curtailment include a change from driving to walking to work and reducing the duration of time spent showering. Importantly, these changes in behavior must be repeated indefinitely in order for curtailment strategies to effectively reduce energy consumption. In contrast, efficiency solutions focus on technological innovations that allow individuals to maintain their current lifestyle while decreasing their overall impact on the environment (Dietz et al. 2009). Examples of efficiency solutions include switching from incandescent to LED lightbulbs and buying appliances that use less energy. In the case of efficiency, a one-time decision can lead to long-term energy savings.

Stern (2000) argues that efficiency solutions are more palatable than curtailment solutions, and there is some preliminary data that support this prediction. For example, participants primed with items that emphasized individual sacrifice (e.g., “To stop climate change, I have to make sacrifices”) perceived themselves to be less competent about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reported being less engaged with the issue of climate change, and had lower intentions to act pro-environmentally in the next year compared to those primed with items that emphasized collective self-efficacy (e.g., “We help solve climate change when we take transit, compost, or buy green energy”; Gifford and Comeau 2011). With respect to policy, curtailment solutions emphasize how policy can be used to change individual consumer decisions, while efficiency solutions emphasize how policy can be used to promote technological innovations.

Across three studies, we compared support for policies through two different solution frames. Both types of solutions involved increasing costs on energy; however, they differed in their stated goals for what the policy would accomplish. In the efficiency frame, the stated goal of the policy was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating more efficient technologies. In the curtailment frame, the stated goal of the policy was to reduce emissions by getting people to change their behavior and use less energy. Given the likelihood of using public opinion poll data to inform policy decisions related to climate change, it becomes all the more important to explore how subtle changes in the wording of policy questions might potentially skew public opinion. While others have pointed out the differences in policy support based on question wording (e.g., Nisbet 2009; Nisbet and Myers 2007), to our knowledge, none have systematically explored these differences. The secondary purpose of this research was to replicate and extend the results of previous research which has shown that gender and political affiliation can influence public opinion about global climate change.

2 Study 1: statewide public opinion poll

The purpose of study 1 was to provide an initial test of our hypothesis that policies framed as efficiency solutions would garner more public support compared to similar policies framed as curtailment solutions. This research also served as a partial replication of previous research showing that Democrats were more concerned about global warming compared to Republicans (Dunlap and McCright 2008) and that women are more concerned compared to men (McCright 2010). This study also sought to extend this previous research by testing to see if these partisan and gender-based differences extended into the realm of policy support.

2.1 Methods

2.1.1 Participants

Participants in this study were a random sample of 771 adult Arkansans (450 female and 307 male, 14 did not provide a response) who agreed to complete a telephone survey conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Arkansas from October 8–17 in 2006.1 The cooperation rate for the poll was 38%2 and the survey’s margin of error is ± 3.5 percentage points (Parry and Schreckhise 2006). Respondents’ ages ranged from 18 to 93 (M = 54.18, SD = 16.25). Twenty-six percent had a high-school degree (or equivalent) and 66% had more than a high-school education. More than half of respondents were married (58.3%) and 54% reported an average annual household income of greater than $35,000. Of those who provided their political affiliation (N = 731), 24.1% identified as Republican, 37.8% as Democrat, 34.6% as Independent, and 3.6% as “other.” The codebook, dataset, and summary report from this poll are publicly archived and available at https://fulbright.uark.edu/departments/political-science/partners/arkansas-poll.php.

2.1.2 Materials and procedure

As part of a larger survey, participants were asked seven questions related to global climate change that were drawn from existing public opinion poll questions used by national polling agencies. Specifically, participants were asked: “How convinced are you that global warming or the greenhouse effect is actually happening- are you completely convinced, mostly convinced, not so convinced, or not at all convinced?”, “Do you think global warming is an urgent problem requiring immediate attention or a longer-term problem that requires more study before government action is taken”, “Should President Bush develop a plan to reduce the emission of gases that may contribute to global warming.” Participants were then asked to say whether they favored or opposed the adoption of the following specific policy proposals as “a way for the federal government to try to reduce future global warming”: (1) requiring that all gasoline be formulated to produce lower emissions even if it adds an additional cost of five cents to the price of gasoline, (2) increasing taxes on gasoline so people either drive less or buy cars that use less gas, (3) increasing taxes on electricity so people use less of it, (4) giving companies tax breaks to produce more electricity from water, wind, and solar power. Policies 1 and 2 focused on regulating gasoline while policies 3 and 4 focused on electricity. More importantly, for each resource, one policy proposal identified curtailment as the goal of the policy (policies 2 and 3), while the other policy emphasized technological efficiency (policies 1 and 4). Respondents also provided demographic information such as age, gender, education level, household income, race, and political party affiliation.

2.2 Results

2.2.1 Overall results

Overall, a majority of Arkansans (66%) were “mostly” or “completely” convinced that global warming is happening, 83% agreed that the President should develop a national plan to reduce greenhouse gases, and almost half (47%) see global warming as an urgent problem. When we break down responses by political party affiliation, our results show the predicted pattern (see Table 1). As in the national samples, Democrats in Arkansas are more likely to be completely convinced that global warming is happening, compared to Republicans, with Independents falling in between, χ2(6) = 72.89, p < .001, Cramer’s Φ = .46, and were more likely to see global warming as an urgent problem requiring immediate assistance, χ2(4) = 53.29, p < .001, Cramer’s Φ = .40. While a majority of respondents from all parties thought the President should develop a National Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, more Democrats endorsed this item compared to Republicans and Independents, χ2(2) = 38.49, p < .001, Cramer’s Φ = .34.
Table 1

Public opinion about global warming by political party affiliation and gender in study 1

 

Political party affiliation

Gender

 

Public opinion poll question

Rep.

Ind.

Dem.

Male

Female

Overall

% completely convinced that global warming or the greenhouse effect is actually happening

17.4

34.6

44.5

27.4

38.8

34.0

% who think global warming is an urgent problem requiring immediate attention

28.1

45.3

61.6

45.4

48.2

47.0

% who favor President Bush developing a plan to reduce the emission of gases that may contribute to global warming

67.9

84.8

91.2

79.3

85.5

82.9

Rep. = Republicans, Ind. = Independents, Dem. = Democrats

Further analysis of these data showed that strength of political party affiliation moderated general beliefs about global warming among Republicans but not Democrats. “Strong” Republicans were less convinced that global warming was happening compared to “not very strong” Republicans, χ2(1) = 11.75, p < .01, Φ = .27 (see Table 2 for percentages). Strong Republicans were also less likely to see global warming as an urgent problem, and less likely to favor the President developing a plan to reduce emissions, compared to those who identified as not very strong Republicans, χ2(2) = 5.77, p < .06, Φ = .19, and χ2(1) = 5.77, p < .05, Φ = .17, respectively. Strong Democrats were more convinced that global warming was happening and that it was an urgent problem compared to “not strong” Democrats, but these differences were less pronounced than for Republicans, and not statistically significant, χ2(3) = 4.52, p > .10, χ2(2) = 2.32, p > .10, respectively.
Table 2

Public opinion about global warming by strength of political party affiliation (Republicans and Democrats only) in study 1

Public opinion poll question

Strong Republican

Not strong Republican

Not strong Democrat

Strong Democrat

% completely convinced that global warming or the greenhouse effect is actually happening

14.9

21.4

38.6

46.9

% who think global warming is an urgent problem requiring immediate attention

21.6

45.7

58

63.3

% who favor President Bush developing a plan to reduce the emission of gases that may contribute to global warming

61.1

77.3

87.5

93.1

With respect to gender, our results were consistent with previous research. Women in Arkansas were more likely to be completely convinced that global warming is happening, compared to men, χ2(2) = 19.75, p < .001, Φ = .17, and a greater percentage of women believed that the President should develop a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, χ2(1) = 4.50, p < .05, Φ = .08 (see Table 1). However, the proportion of women who thought that global warming was an urgent (48.2%) versus long-term problem (49.1%) was not significantly different from the proportion of men (45.4% and 49.5% respectively) χ2(2) = 2.99, ns.

2.2.2 Solution framing results

When we compared support for the specific policy proposals, the results showed that respondents were more likely to support policies that were framed as promoting technological efficiency versus curtailment. For example, while 65.7% of Arkansans supported a five-cent increase in gas prices to aid development of low-emission fuel, only a small minority supported taxes on gasoline that were designed to decrease car-driving (18.7%). A within-subjects comparison of these proportions revealed a highly significant and strong effect of solution framing on support, χ2(1) = 320.34, p < .001, Φ = .66. A similar pattern emerged for policies related to electricity production; 78.0% supported giving companies tax breaks for producing electricity from alternative energy sources, but only 10.8% said they would support a policy that increased taxes so that people used less electricity, χ2(2) = 690.50, p < .001, Φ = .96.

Next, we explored if support for specific policies was influenced by political affiliation or gender. We were especially interested to see if any differences based on political affiliation would be moderated by how the policy solution was framed. When we broke down responses by political party affiliation, our results showed only one significant difference, with a small effect size. Democrats were more likely than Republicans or Independents to support a curtailment policy that would increase taxes on electricity so people use less, χ2(2) = 6.11, p < .05, Φ = .09 (see Table 3 for percentages). However, this effect did not appear for curtailment related to gasoline use, χ2(2) = 1.50, p > .10, and there were no significant differences across political party affiliation in their support for policies promoting technological efficiency for electricity, χ2(2) = .25, p > .10, or gasoline, χ2(2) = 2.61, p > .10, ns.
Table 3

Percentage of respondents who favor each policy proposal by political party affiliation and sex in study 1

 

Political party affiliation

Sex

 

Program

Rep.

Ind.

Dem.

Male

Female

Overall

Increase taxes on gasoline so people drive less

17.0

17.4

21.0

22.5

16.9

18.7

Five-cent increase on gas to create gasoline with lower emissions

60.4

67.4

67.1

65.9

65.5

65.7

Increase taxes on electricity so people use less

7.4

8.7

14.0

13.2

9.2

10.8

Give companies tax breaks to produce more electricity from water, wind, solar

79.4

79.3

77.7

79.5

76.9

78.0

Rows in italics represent curtailment policies, while rows not in italics represent technological efficiency proposals. Rep. = Republicans, Ind. = Independents, Dem.= Democrats

There were no significant differences between men and women in their support for policies that promoted technological efficiency for gasoline, χ2(1) = .01, p > .10, or electricity χ2(1) = .72, p > .10, ns. However, there were marginally significant differences between men and women in their support for the curtailment policies for gasoline, χ2(1) = 3.49, p = .06, Φ = .07, and electricity χ2(1) = 3.04, p = .08, Φ = .06. Surprisingly, a greater percentage of men versus women favored the curtailment policies (see Table 3 for percentages).

3 Study 2: lab experiment

Study 1 replicated previous research showing that political party affiliation and gender moderated beliefs about the existence and urgency of climate change and the need for presidential leadership on creating a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Study 1 also extended previous research in two ways. First, we showed that strength of political party affiliation moderated general beliefs about climate change. Both Democrats and Republicans who strongly identified with their political party held more extreme views, but the effects were especially strong for Republicans. Second, we found preliminary evidence suggesting that the partisan divide does not seem to exert the same effect on support for climate change–related policies. That is, while political affiliation had a relatively large impact on climate change–related beliefs, it had only a small or non-significant effect on support for climate change policies. The results were similar for gender.

More central to the primary purpose of the current research, study 1 showed that respondents in a statewide poll were more likely to support global warming policies that proposed to increase the cost of gasoline and electricity when they were framed as ways to promote technological efficiency instead of curtailment. In contrast to the effects of political affiliation and gender, there were larger and more consistent differences observed for solution framing on support for specific climate change policies. However, study 1 also had an important limitation. The questions included in the statewide poll were, more or less, identical to those used in national public opinion polls. As a result, the questions differed from each other beyond how the solutions were framed. For example, the question that asked about increasing gas prices to promote technological efficiency proposed to do so using a five-cent increase in gas prices compared to the tax increase promoted in the question that emphasized curtailment. In study 2, we use a traditional laboratory experiment to provide a more controlled test of our prediction regarding solution frames. We attempt to balance the competing need to stay true to the original public opinion poll questions (for the purpose of producing externally valid results) with the need to control for alternative explanations.

3.1 Methods

3.1.1 Participants

Participants for this study were 100 undergraduate students (59% female) participating in partial fulfillment of their research requirement in an introductory psychology course who were enrolled at a large public university in the southern part of the USA. Forty-eight percent of the participants identified as Republicans, 25% as Independent, and 24% as Democrats (3 participants did not identify their political party).

3.1.2 Materials and procedure

In this study, participants completed a paper-and-pencil survey that measured general beliefs about global warming, support for different policy solutions, and demographic questions. Beliefs about global warming were assessed with the same three questions used in study 1. Participants then answered three questions about specific policy solutions. The instructions read: “The following are some programs being considered as a way for the federal government to try to reduce future global warming. For each program, please tell me whether you favor or oppose the adoption of each program.” The first policy question asked participants if they favored or opposed increasing the cost of gasoline. The second question asked if they favored or opposed increasing the cost of electricity and the third question asked if they favored or opposed “Giving companies tax breaks to produce more electricity from water, wind, and solar power.” The wording of the first two questions was experimentally manipulated, while that of the third question was not. The first variable manipulated was solution frame. Half of the participants were asked about their support for policies that emphasized technological efficiency while the other half were asked about their support for policies that emphasized curtailment. The second variable manipulated was the wording used to describe the cost increase. Participants were asked about their support for policies that would increase taxes versus add an additional cost of five cents to existing prices. Thus, participants were randomly assigned to complete one of four versions of the survey:
  1. 1.

    Efficiency/price increase (e.g., “Require that all gasoline be formulated to produce lower emissions even if it adds an additional cost of five cents to the price of gasoline”)

     
  2. 2.

    Efficiency/tax (e.g., “Require that all gasoline be formulated to produce lower emissions even if it means increasing taxes on gasoline”)

     
  3. 3.

    Curtailment/price increase (e.g., “Adding an additional cost of five cents to the price of gasoline so people either drive less, or buy cars that use less gas”)

     
  4. 4.

    Curtailment/tax (e.g., “Increasing taxes on gasoline so people either drive less, or buy cars that use less gas)”

     

The questions used in conditions 1 and 4 are identical to those used in study 1, while conditions 2 and 3 control for the wording used to describe the cost increase.

It should be noted that the solution frames used in this research constitute “emphasis frames” rather than “equivalence frames” (Baumer et al. 2017). That is, the two proposed solutions, efficiency and curtailment, are not different descriptions of a logically equivalent outcome, but instead emphasize different goals for the same proposed cost increase. In the efficiency frame, the stated goal of the cost increase is to develop lower-emission fuel while the stated goal of the cost increase in the curtailment frame is to get people to drive less.

3.2 Results

Overall results showed that our student respondents were concerned about global warming. The vast majority (87%) were at least mostly convinced that global warming is happening, 47.4% saw it as an urgent problem requiring immediate attention, and 87.9% believed that the president should develop a plan to reduce greenhouse gases.

With respect to support for specific policies, 37% of students favored increasing the cost of gas, 47% favored an increase in the cost of electricity, and 86% favored giving tax breaks to companies that would allow them to invest in alternative energy. When we looked at the effects of solution framing on support for each policy, we found that students favored policies framed as efficiency rather than curtailment solutions (see Table 4 for percentages). This was true for both the proposal to increase the cost of gasoline, χ2(1) = 6.69, p < .01, Φ = .26, and electricity, χ2(1) = 24.89, p < .001, Φ = .50. Participants were also more likely to support an increase in cost when it was framed as a “five-cent increase,” rather than a tax, but the difference between conditions was only statistically significant in the analysis of support for increasing electricity prices, χ2(1) = 4.06, p < .05, Φ = .20 (gasoline prices, χ2(1) = .22, p > .10).
Table 4

Percentage of participants who favored policies designed to reduce greenhouse Gas emissions by solution frame, cost wording, and regulated resource in study 2

 

Gasoline policy cost wording

Electricity policy cost wording

Solution frame

Tax

Price increase

Overall

Tax

Price increase

Overall

Curtailment

24.0

25.9

25.0

16.0

29.6

23.1

Efficiency

45.8

54.2

50.0

58.3

87.5

72.9

Overall

34.7

39.2

37.0

36.7

56.9

47.0

Somewhat unexpectedly, there was a marginally significant effect of solution frame on the third question that asked participants if they supported giving companies tax breaks to produce more electricity from water, wind, and solar power. Participants in the efficiency condition, who had been more likely to support the proposed gasoline and electricity policies, were less likely to support the tax break for companies compared to those in the curtailment condition, χ2(1) = 3.58, p < .06. This could be due to a priming effect, with those who saw the curtailment frame being more likely to support a tax break for companies (Bargh 1996). There was no difference between those who had previously seen the tax versus five-cent increase wording, χ2(1) = .01, p > .10.

4 Study 3: lab study replication

The results of study 2 provided experimental evidence for the importance of solution framing when assessing public opinion of global-warming policies. Participants favored policies designed to reduce carbon emissions when they were framed as producing technological efficiencies versus when they were framed in terms of their curtailment goals. The purpose of study 3 was to replicate the effects of study 2 using a sample from a different geographic region. This study was conducted during the tenure of President Barack Obama, and so also allowed us to test to see if the results would hold with a Democratic President in office. In addition, we recruited a larger sample so that we could test to see if there were any effects of political party affiliation and gender on policy support that would emerge in our laboratory sample.

4.1 Method

Participants were 163 students (female = 75.5%, male = 24.5%) participating in partial fulfillment of their introductory psychology course research requirement who were enrolled at a small liberal arts university in the northeastern USA. In the sample, 29.4% of students identified as Republicans, 31.3% as Independent, and 39.3% as Democrats.

Participants who signed up for the study were emailed a link to complete one of four online surveys. The survey questions and experimental manipulations were the same as those in study 2, with one exception: the survey used in the present study did not include the third policy question that asked about support for giving companies tax breaks.

4.2 Results

Overall results showed that our student respondents were concerned about global warming. The vast majority (74.3%) were at least mostly convinced that global warming was happening, 41.7% saw it as an urgent problem requiring immediate attention, and 89.6% believed that the president should develop a plan to reduce greenhouse gases. Further analysis partially replicated the partisan divide observed for climate change–related beliefs in study 1. Democrats (50.0%) and Independents (43.1%) were more likely to see global warming as an urgent problem, compared to Republicans (29.2%), χ2(2) = 4.96, p < .09, Φ = .17. Democrats (95.3%) and Independents (94.1%) were also more likely to favor the President developing a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared with Republicans (77.1%), χ2(1) = 11.40, p < .01, Φ = .23. More Democrats (79.7%) and Independents (80.4%) were at least mostly convinced that global warming was actually happening, compared to Republicans (60.4%), but this difference did not reach statistical levels of significance, χ2(6) = 9.99, p > .10, Φ = .11.

With respect to support for specific policies, 28.8% of students favored increasing the cost of gas, and 50.9% favored an increase in the cost of electricity. When we looked at the effects of solution framing, we found that students favored increasing the cost of gasoline when the question was framed as promoting efficiency rather than curtailment, χ2(1) = 12.13, p < .001, Φ = .27 (see Table 5 for percentages). The same pattern was found for the measure of support for increasing the cost of electricity, χ2(1) = 55.34, p < .001, Φ = .58. The wording of the cost increase (five-cent increase/tax) had no effect on support for increasing gasoline, χ2(1) = .07, p > .10, or electricity costs, χ2(1) = 1.40, p > .10.
Table 5

Percentage of participants who favored policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by solution frame, cost wording, and regulated resource in study 3

 

Gasoline policy cost wording

Electricity policy cost wording

Solution frame

Tax

Price increase

Overall

Tax

Price increase

Overall

Curtailment

19.5

12.8

16.3

17.1

25.6

21.3

Efficiency

39.5

42.5

41.0

74.4

85.0

79.5

Overall

29.8

27.8

28.8

46.4

55.7

50.9

When we compared support for each policy by political party affiliation, we found no differences among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans in their support for increasing gasoline, χ2(2) = .46, p > .10, or electricity costs, χ2(2) = .61, p > .10 (see Table 6 for percentages). Similarly, we found no significant differences between men and women in their support for increasing gasoline, χ2(1) = .38, p > .10, or electricity costs, χ2(1) = .74, p > .10.
Table 6

Percentage of participants who supported each policy by political party affiliation and sex in study 3

 

Political party affiliation

Sex

 

Policy

Republican

Independent

Democrat

Male

Female

Total

Increase the cost of gasoline

29.2

25.5

31.3

25.0

30.1

28.8

Increase the cost of electricity

47.9

49.0

54.7

45.0

52.8

50.9

To further explore the potential relationship between political party and solution framing, we looked at support for each policy frame separately for Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. Results showed that Republicans and Democrats were both more likely to support increasing gasoline costs when they were framed as efficiency (42.9% and 50.0%, respectively) versus curtailment (10.0% and 14.7%, respectively), χ2(1) = 6.10, p < .05, Φ = .36, and χ2(1) = 9.24, p < .01, Φ = .38, respectively, whereas Independents showed no difference in their support across the two solution frames (28.0% vs. 23.1%, respectively), χ2(1) = .16, p > .10. For the electricity policy, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all favored increasing electricity prices more when they were framed as promoting efficiency (71.4%, 80.0%, and 88.0%, respectively) versus curtailment (15.0%, 32.4%, and 11.5%, respectively), χ2(1) = 14.89, p > .001, χ2(1) = 14.60, p > .001, and χ2(1) = 29.82, p > .001, respectively. The wording of the cost increase (i.e., tax vs. five-cent increase) did not influence support for the gasoline policy based on political party affiliation (all p’s > .10). However, for the electricity policy, results showed that Independents were more likely to support increasing costs when it was described as a five-cent increase (69.2%), versus a tax (28.0%), χ2(1) = 8.67, p < .01, Φ = .41. There were no differences between the five-cent increase versus tax conditions for Democrats or Republicans, both p’s > .10.

5 General discussion and conclusion

In summary, across three studies, using multiple modes of data collection (i.e., telephone, paper-and-pencil, and online), we found that how climate change solutions are framed impacts support for proposed climate change–related policies. Consistent with previous research on the acceptability of climate change policies (e.g., Steg et al. 2006), individuals showed a strong and consistent preference for policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when they were framed as solutions that would promote technological efficiency, rather than curtailment. Our research shows that most people are resistant to policies that would demand sacrifices, such as driving less or using less electricity, but are supportive of technological innovations, even if they are personally costly. These results are consistent with Stern’s (2000) conjecture about pleas to sacrifice being less “palatable” than requests to support efficiency.

Is sacrifice necessary to prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change? According to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, a majority of Americans (57%) believe that they will have to make sacrifices to reduce the effects of global warming, while only 35% believe that technology can solve the problem without major sacrifices. On the other hand, experts argue that climate change and other environmental problems can be most effectively addressed at the individual level by promoting the adoption of “environmentally benign technologies” (Stern 2000). For example, Dietz et al. (2009) argue that the adoption of existing technologies could reduce household carbon emissions by 20% over a 10-year period (7.4% of total national emissions).

This study had several limitations that must be addressed. First, single-item measures, which are known to be less reliable than multi-item scales, were used to capture support for the proposed policies. Second, these same questions could be perceived as double-barreled. For example, one policy question asked the respondent if they favored or opposed increasing taxes on electricity so that people use less. It is quite reasonable to argue that a person might favor using less energy, but not increasing taxes, or vice versa. While we acknowledge these as limitations of this research, we would also argue that these questions, drawn from previous public opinion research, reflect the types of items that elected officials may rely on when making decisions about which policies to support or oppose. In addition, with regard to the double-barreled nature of the policy questions, we do control for that somewhat in studies 2 and 3 where we manipulate both the policy mechanism (tax vs. price increase) and the reason for the policy (i.e., solution frame). This concern could be addressed more directly in future research by including a control question that asked about support for the proposed policy without any reason provided.

Another limitation of this study is that the data in study 1 were collected more than a decade ago. Public opinion research is typically used to capture public opinion at a particular moment in time and thus to be useful it must be shared in a timely fashion. However, unlike traditional public opinion research, the goal of this study was not to assess public opinion at a particular moment in time, but rather to test how solution framing affects support for a hypothetical policy. We argue that the results we report here remain relevant for two reasons. First, the real and perceived threat of climate change has persisted along with the need for policy solutions. Recent public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans continue to believe that global warming is happening (Leiserowitz et al. 2018) and that it will affect them or a family member personally (Quinnipiac University Poll 2017). If anything, the perceived urgency of climate change has only increased. For example, the percentage of Americans nationwide who believed that they were being harmed “right now” by global warming increased from 28% in June of 2010 to 48% in December of 2018 (Leiserowitz et al. 2018). Furthermore, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms that climate change continues to be a pressing issue in need of policy solutions (IPCC 2018). Second, data from a recent public opinion poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research (2014–2019) seem to support our general conclusion. The poll found that more than half of all respondents were willing to support a carbon tax if the funds were specified as being for research and development of renewable energy and public transportation (i.e., efficiency solutions), compared to only 44% who supported it irrespective of how the funds would be used.

A third limitation of this research is that possible psychological mediators of the solution framing effect were not explored. Previous research has shown that both acceptance and support for climate change policies is predicted by endorsement of a free-market ideology, perceived effectiveness, and perceived fairness of the policy (Dreyer et al. 2015a; Dreyer and Walker 2013; Steg et al. 2006). Previous research by Steg et al. (2006) suggests that policies targeting efficiency behaviors may be perceived as more effective than those targeting curtailment.

The results of this research have important implications for elected officials and policy makers who rely on public opinion, knowingly or unknowingly, to inform their legislative decisions. For example, one might be inclined to ask which type of polling question better reflects the true state of public opinion about support for global warming policies. We argue that questions framed in terms of curtailment may fail to accurately capture public opinion for two reasons. First, corrective taxes imposed by the government, like the ones suggested in our public opinion poll questions, typically have clearly delineated uses. For example, federal taxes on gasoline have historically been used to maintain roads and other transportation-related infrastructure (Thorndike 2013). Alternatively, governments might use the revenue to pursue goals related to the corrective tax (Marron and Morris 2016). For example, in the case of a carbon tax on gasoline, revenue might be used to subsidize research and development of more efficient fuel, as suggested by the public opinion poll questions in our efficiency frame. In that sense, public opinion polls that cite curtailment as the only goal of the policy are disingenuous because the revenue generated will likely be used to benefit the public in some way. Second, although in theory individuals might choose to drive less in response to increasing gasoline prices, research has shown that driving is a relatively inelastic behavior (Eitches and Crain 2016; United States Energy Information Administration 2014). That is, the amount of gasoline purchased remains constant even while gasoline prices fluctuate. Economists speculate that this is likely because gasoline is a “necessity good,” essential for everyday living and not easily substituted by another product. Thus, public opinion poll questions that are framed in terms of efficiency improvements would seem to be more accurately portraying both the costs and benefits of enacting the policy, compared to those framed in terms of curtailment.

This research partially replicated the findings from previous research on political party affiliation and gender. The data from study 1 adds to the growing literature demonstrating the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans with respect to their beliefs about climate change. Consistent with previous research (e.g., Dunlap and McCright 2008), we found that, compared to Republicans, Democrats were more convinced that climate change was happening, that it was an urgent problem requiring immediate action, and that the President should take action. These results remain relevant today as the partisan divide observed in 2006 has persisted and possibly grown stronger. According to a recent poll by NBC/Wall Street Journal, 70% of Democrats see climate change as a “serious” problem that requires “immediate action” while just 15% of Republicans see the problem as urgent (Kamisar 2018). Unlike most previous research, our study included Independents, and showed that in the state of Arkansas, Independents fell somewhere in between Democrats and Republicans. In the past two decades, the number of adult Arkansans who identify as Independents has ranged from a low of 28% in 2004 to a high of 42% in 2010, and was at 37% in 2016 (Parry 2016). Nationally, the number of people who identify as Independent stands at around 39% of the population, making Independents worthy of inclusion in any analysis of public opinion on climate change (Pew Research Center 2015). Furthermore, a 2017 poll by The NBC/Wall Street Journal showed that a growing number of Independents see climate change as a problem in need of “immediate action” (Kamisar 2018). We also partially replicated previous research showing that women are more concerned about climate change compared to men. However, these effects were relatively small, and not consistently found across questions.

This research also extended previous research on the partisan divide by looking at strength of political party affiliation as a moderator of beliefs about global warming. Our results showed that the more strongly a person identifies as a Republican or a Democrat, the more polarized their views on climate change become. Specifically, our data showed that strong Republicans were significantly less likely to be convinced about climate change or to see it as an urgent problem, compared to Republicans who were not strongly identified with their party. These results are consistent with research by Dunlap et al. (2016) showing that Democrats who identify as liberal and Republicans who identify as conservative hold more polarized views on climate change.

Perhaps more importantly, this research extends previous research on the partisan divide by providing evidence to suggest that this divide may not extend into support for proposed climate change policies. In both study 1 and study 3, we found few differences between Republicans and Democrats in their support for the proposed policies (but see Dreyer et al. 2015b for evidence of a partisan divide on support for an enacted carbon policy in Australia). While we replicated previous research showing a partisan gap in general beliefs about global warming, we extended this research by showing that the partisan gap narrows for policy support. However, future research is needed to explore the possibility that the deepening partisan divide may also impact support for climate change–related policies.

In conclusion, across three studies that spanned two Presidential administrations, one Republican, one Democrat, we show that how solutions are framed matters more than the respondents’ political affiliation. While demographic variables and political affiliation may be important in determining support for climate policies, our research shows that how we frame the proposed solutions also matters.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    759 respondents completed the survey, 2 partially completed 80% or more, and 10 completed 50–80%.

  2. 2.

    The cooperation rate is calculated by taking completed surveys as a percentage of all eligible individuals contacted. Additional support for the representativeness of the poll comes from its ability to accurately predict election outcomes. In 2006, the Arkansas Poll correctly predicted three out of three election-related outcomes: the election of Governor Mike Beebee and two ballot initiatives (Parry, J., personal communication, January 11, 2019).

Notes

Acknowledgements

Study 1 was supported by an in-kind grant from the Blair Center’s Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas. We would like to thank Donna Rupp for her assistance with manuscript preparation. Michael Jenkins and two anonymous reviewers provided valuable feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript.

Funding

This research was supported, in part, by an in-kind grant from the Blair Center’s Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas.

Compliance with ethical standards

This research complied with ethical standards for research with human subjects, including obtaining voluntary participation in study 1 and informed consent in studies 2 and 3.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ScrantonScrantonUSA

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